Criterion Sunday 324: La Bête humaine (1938)

Billed as a proto-film noir, this is as gorgeously evocative as you might expect from a Renoir film of this period, which like Carné’s Port of Shadows (also with Gabin, and released the same year) has a way of conjuring a complex tangle of emotions out of the grey, smoke-filled skies of an industrial setting (Le Havre features in both films). Here, everyone is a creep though, not least Gabin’s protagonist, who confesses his familial madness is the desire to kill women, which is a pretty big flaw and makes him rather hard to sympathise with, but not exactly out of keeping with the genre. That said, the femme fatale (Simone Simon) is herself mixed up in a murder plot with her husband (Fernand Ledoux), who also has a tendency towards violent jealous rage, so really nobody comes off particularly well in this story, and one is left shaking one’s head at the futile pointlessness of everything by the end — which may well have been Renoir/Zola’s intention, but makes it difficult to love.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir; Writers Renoir and Denise Leblond (based on the novel by Émile Zola); Cinematographer Curt Courant; Starring Jean Gabin, Simone Simon, Fernand Ledoux; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 21 May 2020.

Vợ ba (The Third Wife, 2018)

Another strong area of interesting regional cinema in Southeast Asia has been Vietnam which, aside from a few films by Trần Anh Hùng I’d seen decades ago, I have regrettably not been very good at keeping up with in recent years. One recent example that got a UK release was this period drama directed by Ash Mayfair, a young Vietnamese woman director making her feature debut.


I really liked the languid pacing and style of this Vietnamese period film, about May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), a young girl who is married to a wealthy landowner as his third wife (the clue is in the title). Still, it’s a moving depiction of what in the period was not considered an unusual situation, and the film is about her contending with the familial situation into which she finds herself placed, negotiating her feelings with the other wives, and with the other family members. I can’t say that a great deal happens — there’s a secret affair that May witnesses, and meanwhile she strikes up her own feelings towards one of the other wives, but this all comes out in fairly oblique ways. Indeed, the woman directing the film is (understandably) good at avoiding sexualising or sensationalising the story, given the young age of her lead actress, and so it registers far more on an emotional level, though the visuals do have a real beauty to them.

The Third Wife film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ash Mayfair; Cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj ชนานันต์ โชติรุ่งโรจน์; Starring Nguyễn Phương Trà My, Mai Thu Hường, Trần Nữ Yên Khê; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 16 November 2019.

Your Sister’s Sister (2011)

Moving back to proper indie films is another of Lynn Shelton’s small but well-crafted features dealing with relationship dramas in the Pacific Northwest. She always worked with the finest actors, and it really pays off at times (though it’s not my favourite of her films, preferring Laggies and Touchy Feely). I’ll cover her final film tomorrow.


I like plenty about the improvisational aesthetic that this film fits into, that world of “mumblecore”, low-key relationship drama, situations focusing on believable people in relatable circumstances. I like all three of the actors, and Lynn Shelton is a fine director. I did, however, feel like the set-up here was a little bit overwrought, as if a plot discarded from a telenovela or soap, which meant I found it difficult to connect with the characters. That said, of course, the acting was all superb, and it’s largely set in a striking part of the Pacific Northwest.

Your Sister's Sister film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lynn Shelton; Cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke; Starring Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mike Birbiglia; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 27 April 2017.

Skate Kitchen (2018)

Crystal Moselle is a New York filmmaker whose debut was a few years ago, so quite some time after the heyday of no-budget filmmaking in the 2000s, though her films have a similar observational, improvised quality (moving more into a documentary feeling). Certainly many of the filmmakers of that era and the stories they tell can be very white and middle-class, so it’s been good to see a new generation telling more diverse stories. Moselle’s first film was The Wolfpack (2015), a documentary which blurred the lines between real life and reenactments of movies, and one that was compelling although I didn’t love it. However, her first fiction feature is one I do unreservedly love, being a fictional narrative but which uses real people in a very unforced depiction of their lives, and which could probably be programmed together with the same year’s Minding the Gap. Moselle has a TV series now out on HBO called Betty which follows some of the same characters, and I’m certainly interested in tracking that down.


One of the things I hate in art/literature/journalism is when someone seizes on [thing the young people do now that we didn’t used to do] and makes it into some kind of big metaphor about how all of society is in decline and we should all just give up now, because how can we even function as humans anymore when things have come to this. I’ve seen a lot of that kind of hand-wringing about social media, and it’s tiresome. Anyway, I’m not even sure that little mini-rant is entirely justified, but yeah there are kids on their phones in this film (we only really see them on Instagram), and it’s just… not a big problem? Like, it’s how they meet up, and it’s fine and there’s no Weighty Statement being made.

I like the way this film approaches its story in an almost documentary-like way. Indeed, it feels like more of a documentary than a “real” one such as All This Panic (also about New York City girls), not to mention this director’s own first film, which has an archness to its choice of documentary subjects. The central drama here, such as it is, comes out as a sort of background detail, which is just as well because it’s pretty rote (overdemanding mother at home, friendship group interrelationships being stretched to breaking point by a boy). Instead what we get are lots of scenes of kids just hanging out, having a good time, sometimes getting into tussles, but it’s cool, they’re just down, doing their skating thing.

It’s really quite delightful. I love its sense of space, of the city as a character here, and the almost thrown-off haphazard way it takes in scenes. Also, the actors — who clearly are real skaters — have an unforced quality to them, and positively glow in the NYC light.

CREDITS
Director Crystal Moselle; Writers Aslıhan Ünaldı, Moselle and Jennifer Silverman; Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner; Starring Rachelle Vinberg, Dede Lovelace, Jaden Smith; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Friday 28 September 2018.

Two Relationship Dramas by Nicole Holofcener: Friends with Money (2006) and The Land of Steady Habits (2018)

There’s a certain strand of filmmaking that I like to think of as ‘low stakes cinema’ where nothing really bad happens or is likely to happen to any of the characters — no one’s actions are going to kill or seriously hurt anyone, and there might be a bit of embarrassment or hurt feelings, or even a relationship break-up at the very worst. Much of Nicole Holofcener’s cinema sort of fits neatly in there, and the lives she depicts are just a little more ragged around the edges than, say, Nancy Meyers’s (certainly their homes are less punishingly set designed). Both of these films deal with ensemble casts, groups of people defined by relationships, whether romantic or those of friendship, navigating through complications, without the kind of pat resolution you get with, say, sitcoms. In this way they fit somewhat into the same mould that younger ‘mumblecore’ filmmakers were doing at the same time, though her filmmaking seems closer to the kind of comfortable New York background of Noah Baumbach, something which traces its lineage back through Woody Allen. Between these two films below she made Please Give (2010, which I’ve seen and liked, though wasn’t able to rouse myself to write much about it) and Enough Said (2013), which is just lovely, and I think one of the last screen performances from James Gandolfini.

Continue reading “Two Relationship Dramas by Nicole Holofcener: Friends with Money (2006) and The Land of Steady Habits (2018)”

Art History (2011)

Joe Swanberg is one of the linchpins of modern American no-budget indie cinema, with a string of improvised titles made quickly for no money, but often made in collaboration with stars and directors who would go on to even greater work on their own, whether his chief collaborator here (Josephine Decker, whose new film Shirley is out soon) or elsewhere with Greta Gerwig (on Hannah Takes the Stairs and her first co-directing credit on Nights and Weekends) and, of course, the recently passed Lynn Shelton (who acted in Nights and Weekends). Swanberg went on to dabble with higher budgets and bigger stars, as in Drinking Buddies, but this earlier work, made in surely his most prolific year (he put out six films in 2011), is both very independent and also boldly experimental, not always shining the most positive light on its director.


I used to live with a filmmaker who liked to make deeply self-reflective projects (you might call them self-indulgent, though I have a fondness for self-indulgence) with a minimal crew, a handful of actors, and usually focused tightly around relationships, but sometimes they were more straightforwardly about sex — and specifically the operation of power within sexual relationships (whether successfully or not is another question) — and this Joe Swanberg film feels like one of those. I appreciate the attempt to navigate an understanding of the messed-up power dynamic between the person wielding the camera and the people having sex in front of that camera, especially when the director is in love with his leading lady (Josephine Decker, whose own films are brilliant, while I’m mentioning her). For all of that, though, there’s a complete lack of any kind of erotic or exploitative feeling in the film (this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, itself p0rnographic). Instead, it’s narrowly focused on three people and the feelings between them (the third is Kent Osborne), and if it doesn’t always succeed that’s often because it feels like the camera is too far away from the actors’ faces, so it’s hard to know what exactly is going on between them. It also seems to end just as things are coming to a head, so like the film I’m just going to end this review abruptly.

Art History film posterCREDITS
Director Joe Swanberg; Writers Swanberg, Josephine Decker and Kent Osborne; Cinematographer Adam Wingard; Starring Josephine Decker, Joe Swanberg, Kent Osborne; Length 74 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Sunday 31 May 2019.

Outside In (2017)

I was unsure how to follow a week of American films directed by women, but the unexpected news of the death of director Lynn Shelton was on my thoughts this weekend. I’ve reviewed two of her films here already, Touchy Feely (2013) and Laggies (2014, known as Say When in the UK), the latter of which I think may be my favourite. I’m not much of a writer of obituaries, and I wouldn’t really know where to begin with her life, though she was a long-time resident of the Pacific Northwest and made most of her films there, having started as an editor and done a little acting, such as in Nights and Weekends. She was inspired when she was almost 40 by hearing Claire Denis talk about her work, to start making her own films. She only had a decade and a half of that since her 2006 debut feature, during which time she worked in both cinema and on many acclaimed TV shows (titles like Mad Men, The Good Place, GLOW and the recent Little Fires Everywhere adaptation), and was, I think, really starting to flourish creatively. Her death is a sad loss to independent American cinema, and if you want to know more you could do worse than listening to the long-form interview on WTF Podcast. But as surely the best way to honour a director is to watch their films, I thought I would devote a week to that — not just her films (because I wouldn’t have enough reviews for a week), and not just the so-called “mumblecore” of the mid-2000s, but all the low-budget filmmaking since then (along with films by directors who came out of that), anything which shares a similar devotion to character and setting, and inevitably will touch on several more of Shelton’s films in the process.


This is another of Lynn Shelton’s wonderful, quiet little films about people dealing with heavy stuff in a low-key way. Like many such films, it features one of the Duplass brothers (Jay), here playing a guy called Chris, back in his small Pacific Northwest town after being released from a fairly significant stretch in prison. While there, he connects with his old teacher Carol (Edie Falco), who’d been campaigning on his behalf. There are naturally a few revelations about why he’d been in prison, but these come out rather by-the-by — there are some conflicts, but no huge melodramatic reveals, just a slow drip-feed of feelings that help us connect all these characters, and give a rounded sense of them dealing with various traumas, whether readjustment to civilian life, or a marriage breaking up, or just the sense of being in a small town with nothing much to do.

Outside In film posterCREDITS
Director Lynn Shelton; Writers Shelton and Jay Duplass; Cinematographer Nathan M. Miller; Starring Jay Duplass, Edie Falco, Kaitlyn Dever, Ben Schwartz; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Friday 13 July 2018.

Criterion Sunday 317: The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)

I watch plenty of films but I’m still not sure I have the language to express how this post-Red Shoes fantasia by Powell and Pressburger comes across, because more than most films it seems to move somewhere beyond the reach of mere words. It blends ballet and opera on sets that don’t merely defy naturalism but seem to actively conspire against it in every dimension, as people vanish into the floors, run down grand staircases in 2D, float in the sky or disappear into the trees. And that’s before we’ve even mentioned the gaudy costumes, each colour-themed to the film’s three segments and framing story. It’s a film about a writer called Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville), in love with a dancer called Stella (Moira Shearer), who waits for her during one of her performances and regales the lads down the pub with some stories of his past loves. If this were taken as being about the nature of women, then it comes up a little short (as Shearer she’s a puppet, as Ludmilla Tchérina she’s a courtesan, and as Ann Ayars she’s tragically doomed), but it’s really about this self-regarding man and his obsessions, which doom him never to be happy with a woman. It’s as much an aesthetic experience as it is a film, and it will weary you if you’re not a fan of opera, but it’s certainly something special.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Writers Powell, Pressburger and Dennis Arundell (based on the opera Les Contes d’Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach with libretto by Jules Barbier, itself based on the short stories “Der Sandmann” [The Sandman], “Rath Krespel” [Councillor Krespel] and “Das verlorene Spiegelbild” [The Lost Reflection] by E.T.A. Hoffmann); Cinematographer Christopher Challis; Starring Robert Rounseville, Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Ludmilla Tchérina, Ann Ayars, Léonide Massine; Length 127 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 13 May 2020.

Smooth Talk (1985)

It feels like there were a number of interesting films being directed by women in the American cinema of the 70s and 80s, which perhaps went a little under the radar and haven’t been so easy to find on home video. Smooth Talk was the narrative feature film debut of a long-time documentarian Joyce Chopra, and though the narrative feels like it may have been guided a little too strongly by the man doing the writing, it’s still great at building up a sense of place, and features the young Laura Dern.


As this opens, there are few films that can match the sheer 80s-ness of everything: the fashion and haircuts, the music (particularly on the soundtrack), the filmmaking techniques. It’s like a soap opera, and it paints a persuasive picture of a certain kind of Californian upbringing, hanging at the mall and being with your friends. Laura Dern is brilliant in the lead role, and does an effective job of conveying this young woman, hanging out late and being flirtatious, although every so often there are these creepy men hanging around. But then the movie takes a lurch into a weird terrifying stalker narrative, and Treat Williams is good but the film suddenly just seems to want to punish her for her sexuality (no less than any contemporary horror films would), and it becomes uncomfortable in more ways than perhaps the filmmaker intended. Still, there’s a lot of great stuff in here, not least the acting.

Smooth Talk film posterCREDITS
Director Joyce Chopra; Writer Tom Cole (based on the short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates); Cinematographer James Glennon; Starring Laura Dern, Treat Williams, Mary Kay Place; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 June 2019.

The Half of It (2020)

We used to talk about films sneaking out under the radar on streaming services (or on home video back in the day), but right now online is the only game in town, so the difference is whether you’re seeing it on subscription services like Netflix, or pay-to-play VOD, and Netflix can be a bigger platform than some cinemas (though as they never release their viewership, it’s difficult to be sure, aside from the vagaries of cultural impact). This is the case for the release of the new film from Alice Wu, or should I say the second film she’s been able to make in over 15 years, disappointing given how fundamentally solid her writing is. Anyway, it’s worth checking out.


This is a rather sweet film, and it’s a shame that it’s been 16 years since the last (and first) film by the same director, Saving Face (which I also very much enjoyed) — though I daren’t assume that the market for Asian-American-focused gay love stories has become any more viable in the intervening years. This one rather soft pedals the gay love story, focusing more on the relationship that develops between the jock, Paul (an appropriately lunkish Daniel Diemer), and the bookish Chinese-American girl, Ellie (Leah Lewis), who helps him write a love letter to his (far smarter) enamorata, Aster (Alexxis Lemire), the daughter of a Spanish pastor. Like a lot of high school-set quirky comedy-drama coming-of-age stories, it gets a magical/cutesy at times, pushing its characters at times beyond credulity, but it’s in the service of what is essentially a character-led film about three people trying to find their way in a deeply conformist little corner of America (a fictional town in, I think, New York state?). The three leads are all winning and likeable in their own ways, and the film never really gets dark, beyond a bit of love-based humiliation, when Paul wants to open up about his love (also an awkward scene in a church near the end). It’s an easy watch that may capitalise on the success of To All the Boys, but definitely goes in its own specific direction.

The Half of It film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alice Wu 伍思薇; Cinematographer Greta Zozula; Starring Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer, Alexxis Lemire; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 6 May 2020.